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 Touching Strangers 

 the comfort and crisis of anonymous human contact 

JUNE 2020

I wrote this personal reflection in response to two intersecting pandemics: 

unprecedented social isolation in the early months of COVID-19 and 

the effects of systemic racism and police brutality on bodily autonomy.

It was one of those frosty New England nights, at the brink of 2020, that made me want to hibernate. So much, in fact, that when I arrived at the scene — a nondescript building between auto repair shops in one of Boston’s less scenic corners — the industrial exterior seemed more inviting than the people I pictured inside. Luckily, having predicted my own hesitation, I entered the crowd in fool-proof style: holding an expiring Groupon in one hand and an equally reluctant friend in the other.

Swing dancing, it turns out, is exactly what it sounds like: loose and loopy and fluid. On this new turf, I learned the “triple step” — a trademark bounce that required a tiring semi-squat. To my horror, that was all. Beyond this basic footwork, we just had to roll with it.

As people approached me, I felt compelled to make small talk, as if exchanging formalities would explain why their hand was suddenly clutching my lower back. But as the music got louder, and the lights got dimmer, and the room got hotter, and the faces got blurrier, the introductions seemed unnecessary. I stopped asking for names.

Everything was wet: people’s faces, backs, hands. My own hair, which typically expands two-fold in humidity, was so saturated that it clung to my neck in damp strands. I scanned the crowd for my friend, who had tried to dodge the entire event by proclaiming herself a germaphobe. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, she was now spinning too fast to notice my apologetic glance. When I met her in the parking lot several hours later, we stood in silence, the sweat crystallizing on our skin. This wasn’t transcendence, but it felt pretty darn close.

There was the man with the curved back. The woman with knee-high leather boots and matching black lipstick. The pregnant instructor. The girl with tiny wire lights woven into her mesh skirt. The guy with strong forearms, who pushed me backwards and pulled me forwards and it was all ridiculous and natural and sharp and circular and I didn’t care how I looked because there were no mirrors. As a “follower,” I had it easy: I stayed loose, braced to be flung. People came and went, and it didn’t matter who they were, or that I’d never see them again, or that they were twice my age, or half my height, or married, or single, or lonely, or content. We just had fun. A rotation of bodies, dancing.


It takes three men to hoist her onto the top scaffold. “One, two, three,” the attendant counts, queuing a coordinated lift. And again. “One, two, three.” The movement is rehearsed, staccato. Rhythmic, even. It’s the daily routine: outside St. John’s Episcopal Hospital in Queens, New York, morgue workers load bodies into a refrigerated truck.

The video opens with the same no-nonsense attitude of its protagonists. There’s no countdown, no fade-in, no room to breathe before pressing play and being pressed against these walls. The interior is set up like an airplane; a space at 5D. There, with slots on either side, the bodies come and go.

It’s all plastic — impermeable, de-identifying plastic — until one worker recognizes a name. Joe Mackey. Offstage, the morgue attendant makes a confession: in moving a hundred and fifty corpses, he has only cried once.

At this, I sob. It takes increasingly little to jar me these days, and yet I, too, have become hollow. Every night, I file op-eds into my own digital scaffold, memorializing written perspectives lest this pandemic be forgotten. It’s compulsive. Clinical. The least I can do to impose order on tragedy.

But tragedy is most palatable when it happens to strangers; to people far away. If possible, we keep that distance. It’s easier to acknowledge 100,000 bodies than it is to mourn 100,000 people.

The question is other-worldly. Given the current state of ours, I can think of few activities more off-limits than this trusting, reaching, exhaling human orbit.

And yet, the irony of social distancing is that one of the most immune-boosting activities — touch — is cut short in efforts to minimize infection; that we are forced to turn inward at the precise moment when all we want to do is reach out. Our nuclear circles become closer; we form allegiances to a select, trustworthy few. Meanwhile, strangers become stranger. We side-step, scrutinize, blame, and fear. Bodies are vessels for contagion.

In the wake of this pandemic, touching strangers will be a privilege. To feel comfortable again will take a global anatomical battle; some assurance of our collective guard.

But in another pandemic — one of our own making — herd immunity is precisely the disease. It’s the protection that comes with membership when it’s your own group that enforces the rules. It’s the warrant to kneel; to smother; to gaze unconcernedly at the very record of your crime. It’s the ability to preach constitutionality at the same time you abuse it; to defend your reputation with the very violence you deny; to tweet law and order minutes before assaulting lawful protest. And for all the ‘good people’ out there: it’s the desire to claim innocence while doing little to reform the institutions you represent.

America is burning, and it’s been burning for a long time. We’ve seen bodies as weight; bodies under weight. Bodies that have carried weight for centuries: whipped and lynched and redlined and handcuffed and loaded onto those refrigerated trucks now idling outside our hospitals. And so, we find ourselves in two public health crises, both with suffocation at their root.

For many, it takes visible wreckage to prompt reckoning; to recognize an inconvenient truth. Bodies cannot be stripped of context. Or history. Or, for whatever mind-boggling reason, of their skin.

In his photography series “Touching Strangers,” Richard Renaldi, a former professor of mine, pulls unacquainted people into intimate poses. It’s a paradox, of sorts. Closeness — a notion so deeply rooted in trust, shared experience, and continuity — is choreographed between strangers in a split-second snapshot. It begs the question: can intimacy be imposed?

Some pairings are safe — predictable, even — if not for the project’s title. There are the look-alikes; the could-be relatives; the people so innocuous that there’s no reason they couldn’t be together. There’s even a shot of a patient and nurse: a striking reminder of the rotating caregivers to whom we so routinely trust our bodies. But other subjects are stand-ins for populations whose relations should be, by any conventional measure, fraught. On the cover, a gun-carrying police officer wraps his arms around a teenage girl.

The photographs are unnerving precisely in their believability: the strangers look comfortable.

It’s humanity as it could be. Or perhaps never will be. A world in which we’re not afraid of each other; in which we’re connected and equal and vulnerable and open and exposed. In which we can move freely. In which we’re touching without hurting.

“Will you dance with me?”

“Will you dance with me?”

“Will you dance with me?”

I yearn for that dance.

“Will you dance with me?”

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